Goodbye, John Paul

As I write today, Karol Josef Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II lingers between life and death. By the time you read this, I expect he will have died. He was loved by millions and probably disliked by a others, but friends and enemies alike have to concede that he was a great man whose integrity and life changed the world.

Soon after becoming Pope in 1979 he returned to his native Poland where he received a tumultuous welcome. The Communist authorities had for years tried to convince the people of Poland that their religion and culture was dead, that the new rational communist order had no room for God or for the individual, that anyone who didn't believe this was part of a small and dwindling group of reactionaries. Now people saw millions of others come onto the streets to see their Pope, despite the best effort of the authorities to downplay the events. Polish television showed only small groups of old people. The people knew different and they knew they were not alone and that Godless communism was not the future.

Communism in Poland was dead. It just had not been taken off life support.

With grotesque determination, the authorities hung on for another decade, using martial law, beatings and oppression. The Polish Pope kept up the pressure. Churches became places to meet and discuss strategies. Every time the authorities murdered or beat someone, they made sure the world knew. The communist authorities were still Polish, and deep in the Polish hearts, they knew it was wrong what they were doing. John Paul never hated the oppressors and he appealed to their better angels. The violence never approached Iraq levels. The opponents of the regime had some room to maneuver and they worked to make this space bigger. The Pope (along with Ronald Reagan and the American labor movement) was the patron saint and protector of the brave people of Poland.

When the Poles in 1989 elected the first democratic government in the Communist Block, experts and realists in the West knew that the crackdown was on the way. They were sure that Solidarity had overplayed its hand. But Poles are not realists, thank God. And they knew their Pope was with them and they knew that God was on their side. They also suspected that in the end, the authorities didn't have a stomach for that fight. Maybe John Paul's appeal to their hearts had an effect. In any case, no crackdown came. Communism ended with barely a whimper. We almost didn't notice the time of its passing. One day everyone just realized it was gone.

Soon after Solidarity's victory in Poland, the other communist dominoes fell. The unbelievable happened. The system established by Lenin and Stalin, two of the most murderous people in the history of the world, disintegrated almost without violence. Some people might even call it a miracle.

I saw the Pope on two occasions in Krakow - me and millions of others. No politician, no rock star, I am certain no Pope could command such adulation. And in a field holding more than a million people in close quarters there was no fear of crime or even bad manners or meanness. And the next day the grass was trampled, but there was almost no litter or mess. If I had not seen this myself, I would have a hard time believing it. It is an honor to stand in the presence of greatness.

There is no way to argue that John Paul's death is untimely or unexpected, and given the frailty of his body I am sure he will be joyful to be welcomed home, but this day I will mourn his loss.

Posted by Jack at April 1, 2005 8:25 PM